Over the past few months, I’ve been quietly catching up on my reading. I re-read Sea of Poppies, in preparation for reading River of Smoke. River of Smoke is a very different animal from its predecessor, but it is an amazing book too. There are fewer characters and fewer threads. A long time ago when I was a quizzer – not a very good one – I went through a brief period where I stopped reading for pleasure, and more for acquiring knowledge. I tried memorizing opening lines of books, quotable bits, minor characters’ names – as these were the kinds of questions that were asked frequently at quizzes. It rather destroyed my pleasure in reading, and I had to consciously stop myself from doing so. I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction, so any knowledge I have acquired has come as a by product of my reading for pleasure. That was one of the best things about River of Smoke. I knew virtually nothing about the age or its politics, while now I understand a lot more about it, I really didn’t have to labour very hard to do so. I look forward very much to the third part in the trilogy.
I also read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, one of the most lyrical and haunting stories I have read in a long time. I believe it is somewhat autobiographical and the least characteristic of Murakami’s novels, as there is nothing remotely surrealistic or non-linear about it. This time at the library I toyed with the idea of picking up another Murakami but then put it off for later.
What I did pick up was Sebastian Faulks’ World War II novel, Charlotte Grey. Really, it seemed to have been written with me in mind, the sucker that I am for this particular time in history. One of my favourite popular authors is Ken Follet, whose writing is always well crafted. I adore his WWII novels especially, such as The Eye of The Needle, Jackdaws, Hornet Flight and The Key to Rebecca . These are fast paced and full of nail biting excitement, and decent characterization. Of course, they are popular fiction, and do have all the limitations of that genre.
According to Wikipedia, Charlotte Gray is one of three novels written by Sebastian Faulks, set in wartime France. Birdsong is set in WWI, and The Girl at the Lion d’Or is set in the period before WWII.
Charlotte Gray is the story of a young Scots woman who goes to London at the height of the war (1942) and because of her knowledge of French, is slowly co-opted into the secret service as a courier. Her task is to accompany an agent in to France. Charlotte has an ulterior motive in going, her airman lover has been shot down in France and she hopes to find him. When she is due to return to England, she opts to stay back in the little French town Lavaurette, where her contact, Julien Levade, lives. She becomes, for a time, his father, Levade’s housekeeper.
Even though the book’s summary at the back makes it sound that the story is all about Charlotte’s search for Peter, her lover, it actually isn’t so. In fact, when they do reunite at the end, it isn’t because of any machinations of hers. Her search for him, in fact is mostly fruitless and it is just chance and luck that he escapes. It may have been the motivation for her staying on in France, but her stay goes on to mean much more than that.
What the book really does is offer an insight into the French collusion with Nazi occupation. With our benefit of hindsight, it is easy for us to see that the colluders were in fact making the wrong choices, but at the time, it was simply a matter of aligning with the power that seemed the stronger at the time, with the hope of being rewarded with power and prestige in a “new Europe”. And the English, of course were always their traditional enemies. As characters in the book say, Churchill was seen to be prolonging the war for his own ends, and it was believed that the English were refusing to bow to the inevitable. Charlotte Gray does a wonderful job of putting things in their historical context. When the book draws to its close, the allies have begun to regain ground and the mood has changed.
Some of the most luminous exchanges in the book are between Charlotte and Levade, the father. A man who is thoroughly imperfect, yet very perceptive. Julien the son, is endearing, and there are moments when you do wish that it was him Charlotte loved (I believe the movie version has it that way). But only for a fleeting second, because more than liking Peter Gregory, you fall in love with Charlotte’s intense love of him, and wish to hold on to the belief that such love does, and will, conquer all.
The Jewish question is also beginning to rear its ugly head in the book. Two little Jewish boys, Andre and Jacob, as French as can be, lose their parents who are amongst the early deportees. Julien Levade, himself a part Jew, hides them and provides for them. The little boys almost never take centrestage in the story, except for one harrowing chapter, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the entire book, and the one that stayed with me the longest. I defy anyone to read about the little boys’ fate with a dry eye.
For a novel about war and spies, the book is curiously lacking in tension, the feeling of imminent danger. You almost never fear that Charlotte will be caught. But then, it is never intended to be a spy novel in the conventional sense. There is a big denouement though, when all things come to a head, when Levade is denounced as a Jew and deported, and Charlotte is threatened with exposure.
As a child when I read my commando comics and concentration camp stories, I was horrified and saddened, but in a more abstract way. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I have read several times over, affected me deeply, but still on an impersonal level. But as one grows older, and struggles in a real way with a world that is often strange and arbitrary and seemingly full of random tragedy, these characters’ struggles begin to be your own. Charlotte Gray may be a work of fiction, but to me it felt very real.
The Restless Quill has a new home.
3 years ago